Did you hear they’re making a Borderlands movie? Yeah, they’re making a Borderlands movie. Well, at least they’re starting to workshop or pre-produce or whatever it is they do with the intention of eventually getting around to making a Borderlands movie. Great. Fantastic. I should be excited about this, right? I mean, I’m a fan of the franchise. Love the heroes, the not-quite-heroes, the anti-heroes, the villains and the general supporting cast. Love the crude, violent humour. Love the world and lore. It’s all good fun. Why wouldn’t I be excited to see all of this get the big screen experience? Is it ’cause of the long history of video game movies being shit? Probably a little. A lot. But not entirely. But a lot.
I mean, you look back through that history of movie adaptations and it is not particularly heartening. At best, you’ve got movies that are fun swashbucklers if not exactly memorable like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. At worst you’ve got Super Mario Bros (’nuff said). That’s not even getting into all the movies based on fighting games like Street Fighter, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Mortal Kombat- you know what, let’s just stop there before this gets out of hand. Point is fans of games that have been turned into movies are as likely to turn up to the theatre with a sense of apathy or dread (a feeling of “so how are they gonna fuck this up?” if you will) as they are excitement.
This isn’t all that surprising given the games chosen. Many video games have the barest of stories and are better remembered for their mechanics and gameplay. The plot of the Super Mario Bros games is not taken particularly seriously. It’s simply an excuse for the player to guide Mario through each of the levels, getting high and murdering turtles on the way. The video game Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is remembered less for its story then for its excellent platforming and time reversal mechanic (shit I can’t even remember the story, is it the same as the movie?) Max Payne similarly earned its place in living memory as the game that introduced us to bullet-time mechanics, rather than its plot that was “pretty good for a video game” back when that phrase had more (loaded) meaning. Let’s not even get started on the flimsy plots most fighting games use to justify their one on one brawls.
Something important about many video games that those trying to adapt them don’t seem to understand is that it is not always the plots that are important, but the lore of the game world. Game plots are often simple things, simple spins on the old hero’s journey or some such. But the worlds in which these stories take place are rich and full and often relayed over dozens of hours of gameplay, through codexes, indexes, documents, audio logs, snatches of conversation and offhand remarks. It’s a depth that cannot be easily related in a ninety to hundred-twenty minute feature film. Attempts to do so simply come off as (at best) shallow and (at worst) the boring parts of otherwise exciting action films. But it is completely unnecessary.
I’ve mentioned previously that one of the best video game movies, Crank (and its sequel Crank: High Voltage), was one not actually based on a video game but rather embraced the logic of video game mechanics, structure and pace. Another great example would be Edge of Tomorrow (or Live. Die. Repeat. or whatever the fuck they ended up calling it), whose main narrative conceit (every time Tom Cruise’s character died the day reset) bears a striking similarity to the respawn experience of most gamers. Part of what makes these films great fun is that they don’t spend too much time explaining those mechanics. There’s a bit of world building. News reports at the beginning of Edge of Tomorrow that explain the alien invasion and the exoskeletons worn by the human soldiers fighting them, an initial mention of the Angel of Verdun, high hopes for the human counter-attack. A movie within a movie at the start of Crank explaining who he is, who his enemy is and what they’ve done to him, with some clarification not long afterwards. Then they just run with it, allowing the actions of the protagonists and their responses to the changing plots to explain all the implications. Same as a game does after the opening cinematics. Well, most games.
I’ll admit this might be easier said than done. Not being a movie maker myself this is all entirely uneducated opinion. Certain games would find it a smaller task then others. The Assassin’s Creed games for example, who’ve had a movie in the works for some time now that is due for release December next year, is set more or less in the real world. You don’t have to provide an audience unfamiliar with the games much more than a date and place name for them to be able to have a rough idea of social structure, norms, local architecture, system of government and climate. The Assassin’s Order (do they call it a brotherhood? Seems a bit sexist if they call it a brotherhood), the Templars (or the somehow more ridiculously named Abstergo Industries) and the Animus technology don’t need much more than a brief explanation, an exposition heavy conversation or two, before the audience can jump to the appropriate conclusions (Assassins mostly good, Templars mostly bad, blah blah blah shades of grey, blah blah stab that guy).
The world of, say, the Mass Effect games (apparently with a movie in development… maybe? Not sure? Perhaps?) where someone is adapting a hundred odd hours across three games (books, an anime) into a film or two would be a different matter. Seriously, there is a fuck-ton (a metric fuck-ton, in fact) of back story, history and explanation in the universe of the Mass Effect franchise. Don’t believe me? Regular conversations with your crew members includes information on the Council, Citadel, Citadel Space, Human Alliance, the Human-Batarian conflicts, the Batarians, the Asari, Asari biology, the Asari Matriarchy, the Turians, the Turian military, the Turian-Human First Contact War, the Salarians, Salarian spies, the Krogans, the Krogan Rebellions, the Rachni Wars, the Geth, the Geth-Quarian conflicts, the Quarians, the Quarian fleet, the Quarian immune system, and this all before getting into the really important stuff like Element Zero, the titular Mass Effect, Biotics, the Reapers (overall villains of the piece), Protheans, Cerberus and the supporting cast’s varied back stories. Yeah, metric. This doesn’t mean that all this information is strictly necessary for a good Mass Effect film but, well, for anyone in the audience who hasn’t played the games a lot of it is.
I’d claim Borderlands occupies a space closer to the middle of the spectrum. The stories of the main games (ignoring the more complex Tales from the Borderlands by Telltale just now) are pretty simple. Four Vault Hunters, mercenaries and treasure hunters, arrive on a dangerous planet called Pandora to find a Vault, kill whatever’s inside and loot the riches believed to be held within. The second game throws in the downfall of the Hyperion corporation and defeating the fantastically psychotic villain Handsome Jack, the Pre-Sequel throws in saving Pandora’s inhabited moon from destruction, but otherwise that is the ultimate goal of the games. Open a Vault and steal the shit inside. But there’s still a ton of backstory to the world and people that we barely even hear about. The corporations and their ongoing conflicts. Dahl’s failed mining operations on Pandora and its moon, responsible for so much of the dangerous flora, fauna, bandits, cannibals and mutants. The Eridians, the alien races that built the Vaults. How did Doctor Zed lose his medical licence? Did Doctor Zed ever have a licence? Who died when Janey Springs got her (“real sexy Athena”) scar? The Sirens, no more than a half-dozen women at a time with glowing blue tattoos and near magical powers somehow linked to the Vaults and Eridians. There’s a lot of information barely skimmed over, but that’s fine because that information is never revealed unless it’s necessary or entertaining. Much of the world we explore in these games is wrapped in mystery, teased in “Echos” (audilogs) and revealed at plot or comically appropriate times. Sometimes there’s no context provided at all. Sometimes you just gotta go and shoot someone in the face.
This is helped by its ‘Space Western’ setting. We’re used to westerns filled with men and women with barely alluded to secret pasts, silent protagonists, corrupt officials who bought their way into power, bandit gangs, warring factions and more or less neutral mercenaries on one side or another looking to make their fortunes through bounties and contracts. The world(s) seen in Borderlands could make for a great movie as long as they don’t spend to much time trying to explain it, because you don’t have to. It would simply join a long list of past movies, ranging from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (and the other films in the ‘Man with no name’ trilogy) to The Magnificent Seven. That’s if the guys making the film follow the style and standard the games set.
And that segues badly into my next concern. I guess we’ll call it style. Borderlands is cartoonishly violent and cartoonishly animated. The characters and enemies are unrealistically and exaggeratingly designed and proportions, as is the wildlife, towns, vehicles and landscape. Legend goes that at the start of development Borderlands was supposed to be a far more realistic, gritty and dramatic (as can be seen in the original trailer). But they didn’t have enough money, so instead went with what is now the series’ signature cel shaded look. This allowed it to be a lot lighter in tone, and a lot more violent. Seriously, even for a video game Borderlands is bloody. By the time you get to the end of the campaign in one of the three main games you’ve probably got a kill count in the thousands (many of whom have been incinerated, disintegrated, melted or otherwise exploded), and have witnessed scenes of torture and defilement (and have probably participated once or twice). But because you’re dismembering wave after wave of highly stylised, colourful and (important here) inhuman enemies it becomes fun and funny instead of, y’know, psychopathic.
The violence would already need to be toned down to get an MA-15 rating over in Oz (an R rating in the US, I’d guess to be the nearest equivalent) and be turned down even further to get the M or PG-13 rating that studios are known for demanding. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. There’s more to these games than simple violence, and video games kill, maim and explode more nameless and named goons than all but the bloodiest films. But the excessive violence is a strong part of the aesthetic, since a large part of the humour is its satire of the traditional notions of the Wild West where the law was on the side of whomever brought the most firepower to the table, and settlers had to deal with the threat of bandits, mercenaries, road agents, soldiers and the Native population they inevitably crossed. Again, however, we don’t need a triple-digit body-count to achieve that aesthetic. What it does need is a great deal of absurdity.
So the problem I’m getting at is not reducing the violent nature of a game for a movie adaptation then, but in trying to ground the film too much in reality. Video games are, in their need to be fun or deliver gameplay, completely unrealistic. Real people, for example, cannot survive multiple gunshots, duck behind a chest-high wall and pop up again a couple moments later good as new. Real people get at least a little winded when they parkour their way to the top of a castle. Real people aren’t usually assaulted by gorillas hurling barrels. Fun shit, but not very believable. The danger than comes when you try to ground something that is by its nature ridiculous and unreal closer to reality and believability. Turns a perfectly good game about jumping on angry brown fungi with legs and anthropomorphic turtles in order to rescue a princess from (hopefully) the next castle into whatever the fuck the Super Mario Bros. movie was about. It’s still pretty bonkers, but it’s not the kind of bonkers you really want. It points out its own ridiculousness instead of rolling with it and insults the fans of the original property by changing the things it doesn’t think an audience will buy into something it thinks the audience will. Which is stupid. But hey, y’know, that was the nineties. We made a lot of weird stuff in the nineties.
Far more likely these days is that it will in the best case turn into yet another generic action movie with some vaguely supernatural (see Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) or science fiction (Doom) elements. A formulaic and familiar show with a familiar name. Nice to look at, but none to memorable. That’s probably the thing that worries me the most, is seeing such a vibrant and colourful franchise watered down til it loses what made it so remarkable in the first place. This doesn’t just happen to video game movies, and there are far more examples from other mediums (I reckon my fellow nerds would make the claim that until recently comic book adaptations were the worst offenders). The hyper-ridiculous Tank Girl was supposed to be even more hyper-ridiculous were it not for a meddling studio. One of the great complaints about X-Men Origins: Wolverine was the film’s treatment of character Wade Wilson, better known as Deadpool (but don’t worry, the new movie ought to fix that). It is known for great movies to have surpassed the works they’re based on (I heard that even the author of the original book Fight Club preferred the movie’s ending to his own), but this is more exception than rule.
Would someone making a Borderlands film be comfortable with a character like Tiny Tina? She arguably uses the second most sexualised language (the first being Mad Moxxi), is extremely talented at violence and casual about torturing those who’ve done her wrong. She’s also, like, twelve or thirteen, and brings with her all the immaturity you’d expect from someone who was forced to adapt after being broken at a young age on a planet filled with cannibals and monsters. She’s also the centre of some of the game’s most touching and heartbreaking moments (like when we find out what happened to her parents or the her dealing with the trauma of losing another important father figure in the Assault on Dragon Keep DLC). Doctor Zed, Scooter, Doctor Patricia Tanis. They’re all insane, broken, violent people, the last of whom is attracted to furniture. And these are your friends. Let’s not even get into the characters you aren’t supposed to like. Like Claptrap. Let’s not talk about Claptrap. Can you imagine a film that includes the odd yet beautiful relationship between the Psycho Krieg and the canon asexual (but not confirmed aromantic) Maya. Hell, can you even imagine a film where one of the main female characters ends up getting together with one of the main female supporting cast-members like Athena and Janey Springs at the end of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel? If that’s too much for a big-budget blockbuster, it’s unlikely they’d get away with all the actual crazy shit.
There is also the habit of producers to assume that people won’t be able to relate to characters unless they’re all conventionally attractive white folk. Because we as a varied group of peoples and cultures can’t possibly relate to people who, y’know, actually look like us (hey, I’m only a conventionally attractive-ish white guy, I’m allowed to make the point). Point being that the titular Prince of Persia in the movie, and the princess he was after, were played by white actors. Point being that it happens all the fucking time. Shit, they even do it in reboots these days (I’d go gay for Benedict Cumberpatch, but did they really have to make him fucking Khan?) or to the goddamn Bible (that’s an odd bit a blasphemy right there). Admittedly while all six of the female playable characters are pretty white women (something that I’m hoping will change in future games), but there is still a diverse cast of different colours, genders, sexualities and body shapes. I can’t imagine too much of that whitewashing happening in these circumstances, can’t see Roland, Brick, Mordecai or Salvador being turned into a bunch of generic white dudes. I can, however, see a character like Ellie (the digital embodiment of body confidence) being ignored or downsized in favour of someone or something more, well, conventionally attractive.
Not that video games themselves aren’t guilty of some pretty heinous crimes turning colourful characters into bland cut-outs (compare what Overstrike was to what it became) or hypersexualising female characters (if I need to provide examples of this than you probably don’t care too much about this article anyway). ‘Tis why we need to guard our most interesting characters so carefully.
Alright, last thing I wanna do is ask a simple yet oft underestimated question. Who the bloody fuck is going to care? I mean I do, obviously, or I wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of writing this. But it’d be more accurate to say that I care about this now.
Way, way back in 2012 I was in the car with my father and younger siblings. Think we were on our way to grandma’s house or something. Anyway, we saw a billboard advertising the imminent release of Max Payne 3. My dad, casually, turned to me and said, “I didn’t even know they made a Max Payne 2.” I was a bit taken aback by this, and replied with something along the lines of “Yeah, years ago.” He thought about it for a moment then asked if they still had Mark Wahlberg playing Max. No, Max Payne was a video game series and this was the third instalment. Oh, okay. My dad looked into the rearview mirror and asked if any of siblings knew that. None of them, including my younger gamer brother, did.
I care about a Borderlands film right now. I might not care in the however many years it takes for any Borderlands film to be made. Three or four years is a long time for video game franchise. Anything over five is a lifetime. The Max Payne film was released a whole seven years after the game. Same with the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time film. Few games have the kind of broad cultural longevity that an MMO like World of Warcraft have, which still has a large, solid fanbase after eleven years of life and is still relevant enough in the broader pop-culture as ‘The one MMO to rule them all’ (even earning an episode dedicated to it on South Park) that the movie due out middle next year will likely be a rousing success. Maybe. Probably. Will the Borderlands franchise still be relevant in the years it takes to write, make and release a film? Maybe. We’ll see. Point is that in four or five years you’ll have a bunch of young’uns entering the target demographic for this kind of film who’ll never have played a Borderlands game (maybe they’re aware that Borderlands 3 was released a little bit ago, but didn’t pick it up cause they didn’t have the time or interest to go through the first three games and assumed you’d have to). And studios won’t be able to rely on those of us who are and were fans of the series going to see it for nostalgias sake alone. We’ve had our heart broken way to many times before. It’s gonna have to look good, it’s gonna have to follow in the spirit and character of the games to get us in to see it.
Ultimately, what I’m getting at is that it is possible to make a good movie adaptation of a video game. And we want good adaptations of the things we love. We really, really do. So please, if you’re going to make those adaptations, please don’t fuck it up. Please.